Republicans on Capitol Hill have incurred scathing and well-deserved criticism from all ideological quarters for their recent embrace of Big Government.
The latest fiscal atrocity came on March 16th when the Senate spiced up Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg’s (R.-N.H.) self-described "vanilla" budget plan by adding $16 billion in additional spending for unspecified education, health and job-training programs.
A triumphal Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.), author of an amendment to add $7 billion to health and education programs, exclaimed after the overwhelming 73-27 vote (a majority of 28 Senate Republicans supported Specter) that "The Republican Party is now principally moderate, if not liberal."
When it comes to the size and scope of the federal government, the veteran Pennsylvanian, alas, may be right. The question is, why?
One explanation is that the Republican leftward tilt comes at a time when congressional Democrats have positioned themselves even further to the left on spending issues. Republicans may believe that conservative voters, despite their frustration, have no realistic political alternative and will be forced to stick with them on Election Day no matter how much more they spend.
Rhetorically, Senate Democrats appear to understand the scope of the federal government’s fiscal woes and the trade-offs that will be required to address them. During the recent Senate floor debate on the bill to raise the federal debt ceiling to $9 trillion, Wisconsin maverick Russ Feingold said: "Every dollar we add to the federal debt is another dollar that we are forcing our children to pay back in higher taxes or fewer government benefits."
The senior Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad (D.-N.D.), summed up the Republican fiscal philosophy as: "borrow and spend, spend and borrow, put it off, put it on the charge card, do not worry about it, tell the American people: you can have every tax cut and every spending increase, and you do not have to pay for anything." Democrats, he insisted, are different.
In fact, this fiscal rage prompted every Senate Democrat to vote against raising the debt ceiling.
It would be entirely fair for someone listening to these speeches to conclude that the modern Democratic Party is dominated by a bunch of dour budget scolds who want to balance the budget, preferably with tax increases, and look askance at any new proposal to increase federal spending.
Well, get out the smelling salts, because what transpired shortly after the Senate agreed to increase the debt ceiling can only be described as a budgetary feeding frenzy.
A parade of Democratic senators, and Sen. Specter, took to the floor and offered amendment after amendment seeking to add billions to Sen. Gregg’s vanilla budget resolution. In all, 18 such amendments were voted on, almost entirely along partisan lines. Only two passed, including Specter’s. Taken as a whole, they reflect the Democratic Party’s collective judgment as to what next year’s budget should look like. That vision, alas, bears no resemblance to the tough fiscal rhetoric that preceded it.
In total, these amendments would have increased spending next year by nearly $75 billion and by $374 billion over five years. Most of this proposed spending would have been accompanied by unspecified tax increases on individuals with incomes over $1 million, on corporations, and through more efficient collection of taxes already owed.
Where have profligate Republicans fallen short? According to Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.), we must add $6.3 billion to federal education programs to restore nonexistent cuts. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D.-N.M.) wants an additional $4 billion for pork-barrel energy programs. Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow wants to turn veterans’ health programs into yet another federal entitlement at a five-year cost of $104 billion.
And so on. Evidently, the only difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats believe in “tax, spend and borrow.”
The fiscal pressure arising from the retirements of the Baby Boomers has already convinced budget experts of all ideological stripes that we should focus on reining in spending (especially through structural reforms to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security) and reforming our tax code to maximize both economic growth and revenue.
Proposing hundreds of billions in new federal spending and higher taxes moments after delivering serious critiques of our fiscal straits is reckless and makes even the most liberal Republican look downright frugal by comparison. This is enabling behavior of the worst sort.
Fiscal conservatives are justified in wondering if anyone in Washington really gets it.